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April 28, 2012
It's becoming a case of what can't South Carolina do in order to win.
The streaking Gamecocks won their 11th straight SEC game with a 9-1 demolition of Alabama on Saturday, despite benching their usual right fielder and losing their best hitter in the fourth inning. USC (33-11, 14-7) is squarely back in the hunt for a top-eight national seed in the NCAA regionals, and is keeping the pressure on league-leading Kentucky in the race for the SEC championship.
USC is on its second-longest SEC winning streak in school history, topped only by the 17 straight games it won in 2000, the first time the Gamecocks won the SEC title with a still-record 25-5 mark. USC has won five straight series and swept the last three, and will spend Sunday watching the scoreboard from LSU-Georgia, Kentucky-Vanderbilt and Florida-Arkansas so it can find out how far back it is from the title.
No matter what happens in the other games, the Gamecocks are in solid position to challenge. The hitting has come around and clutch performances are becoming routine. Saturday was the latest example, when Patrick Sullivan battled past a rough beginning in his first career start, while Nolan Belcher and Hunter Privette took it home.
"We're having fun," Christian Walker said. "There's no point in being stressed out and being uptight. That was a big part of the last two years - just having fun.
"Beginning of the year, we were playing a little tight. I'm thinking we were worrying about things too much. We're not really worried about it right now."
Belcher and Privette were each on call when Colby Holmes strained a muscle in his throwing arm before the series, and USC further went to the substitute list in the starting lineup. Adam Matthews took a seat after committing three fielding miscues on Friday (despite hitting two home runs) and Walker strained his left hamstring in the fourth inning.
Sullivan gave up two straight one-out walks in the first and USC was thinking that it might be another long day, reminiscent of Friday's Game 2, a 12-11 affair that went back and fourth until a ninth-inning single and an error gave USC the win. Instead, Ben Moore flew out to shallow center field, Evan Marzilli's throw made Hunter Gregory retreat to third base, and Walker cut off the throw to gun Jared Reaves out at second base.
Those are the kinds of efforts that have been so integral to the run of the last two seasons, and USC had immediately sprung Sullivan from trouble. Grayson Greiner and Joey Pankake hit back-to-back doubles for a 2-0 lead in USC's half of the inning and the Gamecocks were off and running.
USC posted runs in each of the first five innings, helped by LB Dantzler's massive home run in the third, and Alabama never threatened. Sullivan scuffled through four innings before Belcher relieved for his second win in two games, and USC cruised to the finish.
Once again, Ray Tanner's moves paid off. TJ Costen, newly installed at leadoff hitter, reached base three times. Sullivan wasn't outstanding, but he was far from terrible. The bullpen picked up, and the hitting continued to flourish.
Another win, and another step toward forgetting. That 1-5 conference start has nearly vanished in a haze of 13-2 baseball.
"Lately we've been able to score enough runs to support our pitching staff," Tanner said. "Today, they get one run. Patrick scuffled a little bit but pitched his way out of it. We just played a lot better. We're playing a little bit more confident. More relaxed."
With three regular-season series to go, USC is hovering in second place in the SEC East and in third place for the overall SEC race. How much of a lead it has will have to wait until after Sunday - the Gamecocks' Thursday start to the series had them a game ahead of everybody.
But USC is in position. It came through four straight series where it had to win to assure itself of good footing with three sweeps and a 2-1 win. There are nine SEC games to play, six on the road, but the Gamecocks are feeling much better.
"We knew we could do it," Dantzler said. "We just kind of had to get some innings in. Now that everybody's been here, played over half the season together, it's coming together."
NOTES: Walker said his hamstring was feeling much better after the game than when he strained it, after stretching for a low throw from Pankake. He was walking normally after the game, but Tanner had no definite declarations on if he would be ready for Wednesday's game hosting Davidson. Holmes didn't wear the sling on his arm that he was sporting on Friday, but Tanner also had no timetable for him. The pitcher burst some kind of vessel in his throwing shoulder while stretching, a "freak" accident, and while he has responded well, he hasn't tried to throw yet.
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